June 1, 2006
Before the time of Edward VI and Elizabeth, the English would celebrate the feast of Pentecost for three days. The ploughing and the sowing were complete. This was the time for dancing and merrymaking. Local pubs would sponsor Whitsun Ale. This was a county fair, with competitions, dancing and music. In some Churches, to reenact the descent of the Holy Spirit, a white dove was lowered from the ceiling.
Other cultures developed different ways to remember the day the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles. In Italy, and especially in Sicily, rose petals were dropped from the ceiling to recall the tongues of fire that appeared on the heads of the apostles. In France, Mass would begin with a trumpet blast to evoke the mighty wind that filled the place where the apostles were staying.
The English refer to Pentecost as Whitsunday. The word refers to the white baptismal garments those baptized on Easter would wear again on this day. Easter and Pentecost go together. They are celebrations of one and the same mystery. In fact, Pentecost makes public what Easter accomplished. The Second Vatican Council re-emphasized this connection. "When Jesus, who had suffered the death of the cross for mankind, had risen, he appeared as the one constituted as Lord…he poured out on his disciples the Spirit promised by the Father" (
Lumen Gentium, 5). With the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church begins her mission in the world.
The Church does not take her origin from human planning or human design. Through his public ministry, Jesus had set the foundation for his Church. He handed on to the apostles the kingdom received from the Father (cf Lk 22:2; Mk 4:11). And he told them that he would one day build his Church on Peter (cf Mt 16: 13-20). Already in that promise is the Church’s great hope. The Church is a gift from God, not a project of man.
In fact, the very word to designate the Church implies this. The New Testament writers use the Greek word εκκλησια (
ekklesia) to speak of the Church. This word translates the Hebrew
qahal) or the assembly of God’s people. The
qahal was the entire community of the children of Israel whom God chose. The community of faith founded on Peter, therefore, is the community God calls into existence. This is no mere organization of individuals. It is the community called into existence by the Father.
At the first creation, God breathed the breath of life into the man he had formed “from the dust of the earth” (Gen 2:7). The breath of life made this clump of clay into a person. From the very first moment of the Resurrection, the Risen Jesus breathes on his follower the Holy Spirit (cf Jn 20:22-23). They become in him a "new creation" (Eph 2:15). Where the Lord is, there is the Spirit forming and bringing the Church to life.
Fifty days after Easter, the apostles are gathered together with Mary in the Upper Room. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, the Spirit comes down on them (cf Acts 1:1-13). A new era begins. Just as a baby already alive comes forth from his mother’s womb on the day of his birth, so the Church, already formed, is born on Pentecost (Pope John Paul II, General Audience, August 30, 1989).
The coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles took place on the Jewish feast of Shavuot, known also as the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. This feast closed the harvest and the Paschal season. It fell on the fiftieth day from "the next day after the Sabbath" of the Passover (Leviticus 23:11). In Jewish tradition, this day became the anniversary of the law. On the fiftieth day following the departure from Egypt, Moses gathered Israel around Mount Sinai. In thunder and lightning, God gave His law (Exodus 19). Now, with a mighty wind and fire, the Holy Spirit comes. He is the new law of love. The old law was written on stone. The new law is written on the heart.
Descending upon the apostles gathered together with Mary, the Holy Spirit transforms and unites the followers of Jesus. In the Spirit who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son, they become one community united in faith and practice. Today, fidelity to the mystery of Pentecost means working together to remain united as the Church Jesus founded on the apostles.
Clement of Alexandria wrote: “There is truth in geometry, there is truth in music, there is truth in genuine philosophy . . . but the only authentic truth is the one which is taught to us by the Son of God . . .” (
Stromata, I, 20). Christ entrusted that truth to his Church. In the Church, the apostolic teaching handed down faithfully in the magisterium is the gift that keeps us from fragmenting into personal opinions. This is the work of the Spirit of truth (cf Jn 14:26).
St. Irenaeus wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit: “Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven” (
Adversus Haereses, Book 3, 17. 1-3). In a word, the Spirit draws us together in love. In the Sacraments, most especially in the Eucharist, the love of Christ turns our hearts from our own desires to God and to the good of others and makes us one. This, too, is the work of the Spirit of love (cf Jn 14:14-21).
When we live the mystery of Pentecost, dissent from Church teaching and disdain for others or for those who are appointed to serve are no longer possible. Over the centuries, customs have changed on the way to celebrate Pentecost. But the reality of living the mystery of Pentecost has not changed. The Spirit opens our minds to the truth and our hearts to love. The Spirit enables us as followers of Jesus to
truly belong to the Church he founded. Who loves the Lord loves the Church. This gift of the Spirit our age desperately needs.